Design for Relevance
By Harald Lamberts, Head of User Experience – Internet Services & Handsets, Vodafone Group
With new social-networking communities popping up continuously, 100,000 apps in the iPhone Appstore, 500+ contacts in multiple places, two to three email accounts per user, Internet feeds from multiple sources, and different end-user credentials to remember for each service, can people still manage their digital lives? If on top of this, a text message notifies you of a new voicemail and an email notifies you of a new status update, something is wrong and the burden to manage it all is on the end-user.
There have been several efforts to bring the consumer’s content, contacts or information conveniently in one single place. Think instant messaging aggregators such as Adium or Nimbuzz, or a social-networking feed aggregator such as Tweetdeck. However, aggregators tend to only provide simultaneous access to multiple competing services, they usually don’t hide the service boundaries or add value by integrating with other content types or services.
The core of these problems is not accessibility or usability but relevance. The more a product interface surfaces the relevant content and actions from the clutter, the better the experience will be. To quote Alan Webber at last fall’s DMI conference in Cambridge: “Design is hot (right now) because it helps us make sense of the world of chaos.” Similarly, designers should also take a leading role in reducing chaos from people’s digital lives. I see it as the task of designers to find creative solutions for surfacing relevant pieces and combine or link content, people, and information where it adds value for consumers.
So how does relevance sit with other design drivers within digital interaction design? Over the years many different aspects have been in primary focus. Following the more academic HCI (human-computer interaction) focus on divided attention, gestalt and cognitive load, the arrival of digital media and the dot-com boom matured interaction design into digital interface development with a focus on information architecture. As these interfaces became more interactive and complex, the focus on simplicity and usability increased. Then, as interfaces standardized and opportunities to differentiate through functionality shrunk, the design focus shifted to creating innovative and natural interactions and aesthetics for differentiating and engaging experiences.
However, this recent focus on aesthetics and interaction should not mean digital interaction designers should be creative artists. The bar that has been set for simplicity will still demand that designers deliver creative solutions for functional design problems at the same time. So the sweet spot of good interaction design has to be a balanced interplay of simplicity, aesthetics, and relevance.
What does it mean for designers to focus on relevance?
The role of designers is still seen by many in a corporate environment as just “making the product look cool,” the infamous eye-candy job at the end. That said, in many organizations, including my current employer, this has changed dramatically in the last three years and in some organizations design teams have a leading impact on the product definition and development. Of course having an executive leader driving this, speeds up the process dramatically.
The underlying driver for this shift is that in order to deliver a coherent brand message it is critical for design and marketing to be aligned from initial design to advertising. Many design agencies have long recognized this shift and expanded their service offering with strategic, research, and development services to provide a complete and quality offering.
In my view, the core of all this is that in order for a product to be desirable, consumers have to perceive that it satisfies a need in a simple, effective and elegant way. To achieve this, the product offering, design and advertising have to form a coherent message, or the proposition message will likely be diluted and not resonate with consumers.
So, assuming that the corporate brand essence is defined, what marketing-design alignment is needed at a product level to ensure that a consumer perceives a product as relevant for them? I see three levels:
Differentiate your product offering
Define the key differentiators for your product in the marketplace and use these differentiators to drive the design process so they come through prominently in the design. Then use them as the key selling points in advertising the product.
Develop clear use cases
Identify the critical ways that users will interact with your product and let them be the point of alignment for the design, marketing, and development teams. It will help these teams focus throughout the development process on the user and specifically how they will use the product.
Focus on relevant content and remove noise
As you dig into the use cases, elevate the relevant content or actions and leave out or hide the noise where possible. Agree on clear principles in cases where commercial drivers and customer benefits may conflict (e.g. search result order, content promotions, advertising).
These three levels should implicitly help ensure a coherent product story or even a coherent brand message when applied consistently across the entire product range.
In the development of the recently launched Vodafone 360 service, the Vodafone User Experience team applied the three levels listed above within the marketing department. Once the high-level product strategy was established, iterative design concepts facilitated the product definition process to identify the key differentiators and associated design pillars.
Then a use case-based design approach enabled marketing, design and technology teams to iterate, assess feasibility and drive development. This helped to maintain an end-user focus rather than a service or feature focus.
Finally, during detailed design, the key creative focus of the user experience design team was on removing application silos, providing easy access to all communication channels, making frequently used items easier to access, and making content more personally relevant by enabling people to easily share it. In short, surface the relevant bits, remove the noise and add value through integration.
Some design examples of Vodafone 360:
3D People view
Highlight that the product provides access to all your people from your contacts and social networks in one single place (1: differentiator).
Hide the social network service environments (3: remove noise) and surface the five percent of people that matter to you (3: relevant content).
All your people that matter to you, around you in a personal and visually rich way. People you frequently and recently communicated with surface for quick access.
Provide a seamless experience for using all communication channels (1: differentiator).
Focus on communication use cases rather than the communication services (2: use cases) and hide service boundaries (3: remove noise).
A single menu from which a user can easily select the communication method of choice: voice, chat, text, email, etc., removing the need to switch applications.
Provide a solution for accessing event notification types across services (1: differentiator).
Focus on users acting on incoming events (2: use cases) and hide service boundaries (3: remove noise).
A single events log that lists all event notifications such as missed call, new text, shared location, music recommendation, etc., into a single place (3: relevant content).
A product’s design or interface is the manifestation of the product offering and hence heavily influences a consumer’s perception of a brand alongside advertising. Therefore, marketing and design strategies have to be aligned, meaning that design teams can’t afford to work in isolation but need to actively and structurally collaborate with marketing and engineering departments.
Design teams should be actively facilitating product definition through initial design iterations and should continue to look for opportunities to enhance the product relevance in the detailed design phase.
This end-to-end involvement allows design teams to deliver a holistic design that highlights the key selling points properly and has the right balance between simplicity, ease-of-use, aesthetics, and relevance—and that’s what it is ultimately all about.
About Harald Lamberts
Harald Lamberts is Head of User Experience for Internet Services & Terminals (mobile phones) at Vodafone Group, where he manages a UE design team to design the user experience for Vodafone 360 and other consumer services. He originally graduated in Psychology/HCI, from where he moved into usability engineering, interactive experience design, and now design management. He is increasingly interested in brand perception, product positioning and maximizing the value-add of design in consumer product development.
Vodafone is the world’s leading international mobile communications group with approximately 315 million proportionate customers as of June 30, 2009. Vodafone currently has equity interests in 31 countries across five continents and around 40 partner networks worldwide. For more information, visit www.vodafone.com
Copyright © 2010 Vodafone Group and Design Management Institute. Vodafone and Vodafone 360 are trade marks of the Vodafone Group. Other product and company names mentioned herein may be the trade marks of their respective owners
This article appeared in the January
2010 edition of the DMI News & Views.
Copyright © 2010 Design Management Institute All Rights Reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the copyright holder.
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